Tag Archives: Iroquois

I’m So Bored With The Founding Fathers

I have been thinking the past two days about the juxtaposition of Native American Heritage Month, something that has been commemorated for almost thirty years now, and the President’s recently proclaimed “National American History and Founders Month.” I am teaching courses this semester on the American Revolution and Native American History. Linking the two stories is easy. Native peoples, after all, did not refer to the American founders as patriots, heroes or freedom fighters. No. They called them “Butchers,” “Killers,” and “Long Knives.” George Washington, the most fatherly of the founders, native peoples called “Town Destroyer,” and they worried that his countrymen would exterminate them. Words and deeds. The American patriots gave native peoples reason to fear for their lives, and to worry about genocide.

Whichever West Wing flunky who wrote the President’s stupid proclamation ignored all of this, and claimed aloud that in 1776, “our Founders gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at Independence Hall to sign the Declaration of Independence, enshrining in the heart of every American a bedrock principle that all men are ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.'” Indeed, he or she claimed that “the United States will always remain steadfast in our dedication to promoting liberty and justice over the evil forces of oppression and indignity.” 

“During National American History and Founders Month,” the President’s Proclaimer proclaimed, “we celebrate the vibrant American spirit that drives our Nation to remarkable heights.” American patriots and heroes, the proclamation continues, “have always been guided by the belief that America must shine brightly out into the world,” and that “this conviction has been at the forefront of the American experiment since our founding.”

It is impossible for me to disagree with the claim “that our democracy’s survival is dependent upon a well-informed electorate,” though that probably means something very different to me than it does to the President’s supporters, but the rest of that is patriotic nonsense. Nevertheless, onward we must go. “To continue safeguarding our freedom,”

we must develop a deeper understanding of our American story.  Studying our country’s founding documents and exploring our unique history — both the achievements and challenges — is indispensable to the future success of our great Nation.  For more than two centuries, the American experiment in self-government has been the antithesis to tyranny, and our Constitution has secured the blessings of liberty.  From the triumphs of war to the victories of the Civil Rights Movement to placing the first ever man on the moon 50 years ago, our Nation has time and again exhibited an unparalleled ability to achieve extraordinary feats.  To continue to advance liberty and prosperity, we must ensure the next generation of leaders is steeped in the proud history of our country.

Of course I have read many of these documents. And it no longer surprises me that I hear similar rhetoric about the founders from both sides of the political spectrum. Progress. Striving. Constantly moving closer to the ideals enshrined in the nation’s founding documents. That is what we are told, what we are all supposed to believe. It is as if the Founders set a standard that we unworthy heirs will find just around the next bend, if only we continue pushing on. We are not perfect, we are told, and there have been a few bumps in the road. The trend is upward, however, always getting better, always becoming a bit more perfect. We are Whigs and at times we sound pathetic.

And here’s the thing. There may have been a time when I believed this, but I do not believe it anymore. I have traveled. People who have not experienced our Revolution live in societies that celebrate individual freedom, and that are at least as equally free and just as the United States.

Let’s be honest, America. We have been at this for two hundred and fifty years. The Semiquincentennial of the Declaration of Independence is only seven years away. And if after twelve score years and ten we have yet to attain these ideals, isn’t it possible, and even likely, that we never really embraced them at all? You can admit that, can’t you? These truths, they’re not so transparently self-evident as they may once have seemed after all. Is it possible, and even likely, that this country is racist and rotten at its core? The sins we forget can never be forgiven.

I grew up on land seized from native peoples along the California Coast before the United States, through war, diplomacy, and armed robbery, stole it from Mexico. I live now on land taken through fraudulent transactions by the state of New York from the Haudenosaunee, the People of the Iroquois Longhouse. I look around me and I see a nation fattened on slavery and racism, exploitation and greed, dispossession and violence. Despite the slaughter of 600,000 in the Civil War the nation has yet to do penance for its original sin. A majority of white people still fight to uphold structures of white supremacy, still support efforts to deprive people of color of their right to vote, still support a President who cages thousands of children far from their parents. And that President wastes no opportunity

to rub the noses of native peoples in the fact that what was once theirs belongs to them no longer. With untold numbers of indigenous women and girls missing or murdered, with indigenous lands opened to corporate exploitation and degradation, with indigenous sovereignty and nationhood ignored, and at times with their very existence erased and denied, the President will take that commemoration of Native American Heritage Month, too. What was yours is ours, and if you challenge us you will be destroyed. With his actions, every single day, he screams at peoples of color, “Get the hell out” or “Shut Up” or “disappear.”

That is the America I see. So why do I not leave? Why not find someplace better if it is so miserable here. I have had people ask me that question, but it really was more of an accusation: If I really believe this, after all, how can I possibly teach American history without poisoning young minds?

Tell me where I am wrong, I might say. This is home.

Many, many years ago, I saw a concert by Midnight Oil, one of my all-time favorite bands. I’ve seen them three or four times over the years. Peter Garrett, the band’s lead singer, said once during a break between songs that he would never leave his native Australia until he made it as great as it could be. I think I feel the same way, but I no longer look to the Revolution for the ideals I want to see realized. The founders left me little to celebrate, other than a flawed framework for government that has endured for more than two centuries, despite the fact that nobody in the President’s administration seems to know what it says. For millions of people, the American Revolution unleashed a force that has done far more evil than good. Perhaps someday we will live in a society where all people are truly equal. Perhaps, and on the other hand, along side our proclamations of liberty and justice for all, our racism and our violence, and our exploitation, erasure, and injustice, we are closer to the Founders, warts and all, than we care to admit.


Teaching on Native Ground

Last Friday, the 9th of March, 2018, was Teachers’ Day at Geneseo, an event my colleagues in the History Department have held for the past several years.  We invite teachers from public schools to come to campus.  They attend a workshop in American history and another in World History.  In the past, we have had a keynote address held at lunchtime, but this year, my colleagues decided to do something different: a roundtable discussion on ways to involve high school students in local history projects that will broaden their understanding of the themes and topics they are expected to learn in school. I spoke briefly about Native American history.  This is a polished-up version of my remarks.


I do not have a specific project to speak about. I would rather suggest a general change in focus, and in our way of thinking, about the teaching of Native American history in New York schools.

In some ways, I believe, the manner in which Native American history is taught in public schools in New York continues a colonial project that began in 1492.  That may sound dramatic, but that is what I believe.  I base that on reading the Common Core guidelines for New York State, and as I have watched five children wend their way through New York public schools.

You—well, all of us really—we teach at public schools that stand on what had been native ground, on lands acquired in behalf of the people of the great state of New York by elite land barons and state government officials who viewed Indians as obstacles and barriers to progress and brakes on their considerable economic ambitions.  Those Indians one way or another would have been completely eradicated and erased if New York’s Founding Fathers had their way. They would be gone.  They would have been either removed, or assimilated, or driven to extinction, and certainly dispossessed.

The students you send to me do not know this history at all.  They know nothing of these stories.  They may know something about Cherokee Removal but absolutely nothing about the removal of, say, the Senecas from the valley as a result of military invasion, epidemic disease, or an 1826 real estate transaction that did not conform at all to the requirements of United States law.

They might know that the Iroquois once lived here, that they lived in longhouses, and that they relied upon the “Three Sisters” for their sustenance, but not that they are still here, fiercely protective of their status as autonomous native peoples, as members of native nations.  They might have been told something about how the Iroquois shaped the Constitution or American democratic thought but not that the Iroquois influence thesis has been thoroughly discredited and never really persuaded any historians in the first place, while they know nothing about how Haudenosaunee peoples actually played a role of incredible significance in shaping the history of this state and region.

They might know that Andrew Jackson is a SOB, but they will not have reflected upon how nearly ALL Americans were complicit in and benefited from the historical processes with which he is associated but which began long before he was born and continued after he died.  Indeed, they will not have thought about how they continue to benefit from “Indian Removal,” a terrible euphemism that should be retired.  Because New York, it is important to point out, became the “Empire State” in large part because of a systematic and determined program of Indian dispossession.

Look, we are historians.  We tell stories about the past.  At the end of the day, these stories are fundamental to what we call history.  It seems to me that we could be choosing better stories.  We all can do better.

So here’s something to think about. This semester for the first time I had my students keep journals.  I urged them to read beyond what I had assigned, to share with me their thoughts about the current events they were expected to keep up on in the United States and Canada, and even to say those things that they were too reluctant or did not get an opportunity to say in class. Of the nearly 40 students in my Indian Law and Public Policy course, a large majority of them expressed their amazement that they had not been taught any sort of meaningful Native American history at earlier points in their careers as learners, especially about the Native American history of the region in which they live.  The sense I got from reading these journals was that they felt cheated.

And this is unfortunate, because this region has an extraordinarily rich Native American history that is easily accessible, and that can be critically engaged with relative ease. It is inscribed on the land in terms of the place names, the streams and lakes and rivers that flow through this region where people lived, the easily-recovered lines of European invasion that cut through Wayne, Monroe, and Livingston Counties.  Chenussio, Geneseo; Canawaugus, Avon.  These were important towns, centers of Seneca power whose history is largely invisible to our students. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Image result for new york state historical markers indians         Wherever your school is located, you likely are near a badly biased state historical marker, full of loaded language, displaying common, stereotyped views of native peoples.  Your students can research these sites, or the events that took place there, and revise them.

When my students ask, “Why weren’t we taught this in school,” I see a powerful teachable moment.  Why indeed? Why do students in New York State learn about Cherokee Removal and not about Haudenosaunee dispossession and the diaspora that made the “settlement” of this unsettled, post-revolutionary state possible?  Do those people who assemble the standards against which your performance is measured actually not know these stories themselves, and so bequeath to students a limited view of this region’s history?

There is an opportunity here to talk about the power to make history, to determine what is and what is not considered part of the American past, and I think local stories are one way to engage students in that past.  If you ask your students to reflect upon why they are not taught these stories, what will happen?  Maybe, just maybe, we have some discomfort in talking about our past, and the considerable benefits non-native New Yorkers have received from this state’s very long and continuing history of colonialism.

The Lewis Henry Morgan School in Rochester New York

If you study the Iroquois, you have come across the work of the pioneering anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan.  He published in the middle of the nineteenth century The League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois.  It is an important book. Though many of Morgan’s findings have been rejected, there is no doubting the significance of the work.  His ties to the Parker family at Tonawanda gained him extraordinary access at a period when many Americans still anticipated that the Iroquois, like other Native American peoples, would disappear.

Morgan’s Rochester ties are deep.  He lived in town, left his papers to the University of Rochester, and for years his grave in Mount Hope Cemetery became a pilgrimage site for Iroquois leaders and activists.  In this picture, taken in 1920, Oneida Elsie Elm sings a funeral dirge at his grave site. George Decker, the Rochester attorney who represented the Oneidas, and who helped in the attempt to take Levi General’s (Deskaheh) complaints about Canada’s treatment of Haudenosaunee at Grand River before the League of Nations in Geneva, stands farthest to her left.  The Seneca Arthur Parker, another force in Haudenosaunee anthropology with whom we must contend, stands to her left.  The Oneida William Rockwell and the Mohawk Louis Bruce are also pictured.  The University of Rochester is hosting events to commemorate the bicentennial of Morgan’s birth, and has recently launched what I expect will become a fantastic digital humanities project focused on Morgan’s life and career, and its significance. You can take a look at the website here.  It looks fantastic.

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with Robert Foster, Professor of Anthropology of UR and the director of the Morgan project. He indicated that there had once been a school in the Rochester City School District named after Morgan.  Bob had heard that the school’s auditorium was decorated with Haudenosaunee themes, though he had not yet seen them himself.

I did some poking around.  It took only a minute to find out that the school had been recommissioned as a charter school, Number 10, the Dr. Walter Cooper Academy School.  A couple of phone calls, and thanks to a welcoming staff, I was able to take some pictures of the auditorium.

My students have no sense of how much the WPA did, and how much government can do.






The woodwork above the stage includes the names of the Six Nations.  The placement of the Mohawks far to the left and Senecas and Tuscaroras to the right makes sense when one appreciates that I was facing South when I took this picture. The vertical posts are fashioned to look like trees, with beavers at the bottom of each. Morgan wrote a study called The Beaver and His Works.   Running along the top above the names of the Six Nations is woodwork, I assume, designed to look like wampum.

According to Ivan, the custodian who allowed me access to the building, the auditorium is scheduled to be remodeled.  The stage will remain, and the room will be transformed into the school library. The plans at this stage include a replica longhouse to be built into the library design.

Everywhere one goes, you see see evidence of erasure.  Non-native Americans, in my experience, are uncomfortable talking about the violence of the past, the totality of that dispossession.  Native peoples, when they are considered in public schools, are cast as part of the past.  The images and motifs present in the old Lewis Henry Morgan school auditorium do that as well.  But they also provide an opportunity to talk about that history, and I was pleased to see that the Walter Cooper Academy plans on keeping them as they move forward with renovations.  The school staff with whom I spoke were proud of the room.  I could tell that when I visited.

The University of Rochester will be hosting events over the course of this year.  You can find out more about those events here.



Treaty Day, 11/11

Today is Treaty Day in Canandaigua, New York. An annual commemoration of the treaty the Six Nations of the Iroquois signed with the United States in 1794 is held there each year, with a parade from the Canandaigua Primary School to the County Court House lawn at 130, and a commemoration ceremony at 200.  For the rest of the day, there are vendors and displays and speakers at the primary school.  The school site itself is significant because a large number of the 1600 Indians who attended the treaty council between September and November in 1794 camped on land that ultimately became the school’s play fields.

Two years ago I published a book about the Treaty of Canandaigua.  The United States negotiated about 370 treaties with a large number of American Indian nations. These diplomatic agreements do various things. Some of them established peace after periods of warfare. They granted to the United States control over the internal affairs of tribes.  They allowed the government to further its variety of “Civilization” programs, from the provision of spinning wheels and livestock to early moves towards allotment, and they were the instrument through which the land that made up Native America became part of the United States. Some of these treaties were fraudulent. There is no doubt about that.  Some of them were deceptive, and others coerced. Many were, in short, instruments of colonial control. Canandaigua, I argued, was different.

After the Revolution, the United States dictated a treaty of conquest to the small number of Six Nations people who gathered in November of 1784 at Fort Stanwix.  The United States negotiated similarly coercive treaties with the southeastern nations at Hopewell and with the Ohio Valley tribes at Fort McIntosh.  At Stanwix, American treaty commissioners dispensed with the long-recognized protocols of Iroquois diplomacy, thumped the gathered Indians on the chest, and explained to them what the new American empire would look like. The Iroquois were expected to release prisoners and provide hostages as a measure of their good faith. And they were required to give up all of their lands west of a line drawn four miles east of the Niagara River, a move designed to contain the Six Nations within the State of New York and cut them off from the British posts at Oswego and Niagara, and their kin who had resettled at Grand River in Ontario. The treaty did nothing to address some significant grievances that were felt particularly by the Senecas, the largest and westernmost of the Iroquois nations in New York. The Senecas complained of white encroachments on their land.  The complained about murders, 13 of them by white frontiersmen between 1784 and 1790, and an uncertain number more afterwards. And they complained on limitations on their ability to move: the lack of access to the Niagara River, and the claim asserted by Pennsylvania to the so-called “Erie Triangle,’ that tag of land you pass through in the Keystone State when you follow Interstate 90 from, say, Buffalo to Cleveland.

These grievances were significant. And the native peoples in the so-called Northwest Territory shared many of them–encroachment, violence, and so on. To deal with the threat posed by the confederated Northwestern nations–Shawnees, Delawares, and many others–President Washington sent out an American army led by Josiah Harmar to teach them that the soldiers of the United States numbered like the trees in the woods, the stars in the sky.  The Americans were defeated handily, “thrown on their backs.” Harmar lost one hundred men and five hundred horses.  The Northwestern confederates attacked American settlements in Kentucky, Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and their allies did damage in the Carolinas and Georgia as well, They pushed back American settlement. Another army went out under the command of Arthur St. Clair.  Its story is told by Colin Calloway in The Victory with No Name. They marched out into the Ohio country. On the 4th of November in 1791, the Northwestern confederates attacked them.  Of St. Clair’s 1400 men, 910 were killed or wounded.  St. Clair lost 1200 muskets, lots of artillery, his horses.  Twenty percent of the entire armed forces of the United States was wiped out in one day.

Could it get worse? Yes.  The British still held their forts at Oswego, Niagara, and Detroit on the margins of an Iroquoia that had remained under siege since the Revolution.  Settlers were terrified.  The British looked at these Indian victories and began to discuss among themselves the possibility of carving out a neutral Indian Barrier State, with its southern boundary running along the Ohio River.  What would happen if the powerful and aggrieved Six Nations joined with the Northwestern confederates? The entire frontier would be exposed, and native warriors posed an existential threat to the United States.

So what to do? Seneca diplomats and American officials both recognized that they could address the challenges they faced through negotiation and diplomacy better than through warfare.  The Senecas had learned well what American soldiers could do to their homeland from the Sullivan Campaign of 1779.  Iroquois diplomats traveled widely, risking their lives, some of them dying, in an effort to avoid war and protect their communities.

Timothy Pickering, the emissary appointed by Washington, met with the Senecas at Tioga in the fall of 1790, in the wake of the Pine Creek murders, a crime for which the one person tried was acquitted. Pickering learned from this that no jury would convict a white man for murdering Indians.  Native lives did not matter, he lamented.

Meanwhile, other Seneca leaders were meeting with American officials in Philadelphia, a meeting in which George Washington pledged to protect the Iroquois from any additional land grabs by the State of New York.  And in the fall of 1791, Pickering met with a larger group of Senecas at Newtown Point, to establish friendship and alliance.

The United States needed the Six Nations. Pickering understood that better than any of his American policy-making peers.  The Six Nations served as American eyes and ears in the west, for instance.  The British continued to work with Indians in the region, including the Senecas, from their posts at Detroit and Niagara. And the State of New York, despite Washington’s promises, continually offered fresh sources of grievance through fraudulent and illegal land sales.  In my current book project on the Onondagas I spend a lot of time on the 1788 and 1793 purchases. 

To resolve these crises, the United States called a council to meet at Canandaigua, which was far enough away from Niagara, Pickering hoped, to keep the British from interfering.  That was the hope. 1600 Haudenosaunee showed up at Canandaigua in the fall. They brought with them many grievances.  Encroachment on their lands must stop.  Murders must stop. And their land issues: access to the Niagara River and the claim to the Erie Triangle.

Now here’s the thing.  Before the treaty council commenced at Canandaigua, the northwestern Indians had been defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The defeated Indians fled toward a British post, and there they found no shelter or assistance.  From this Pickering knew, then, that there was no immediate threat that the Senecas would join with the Northwestern confederates because they had been defeated.  And there was no longer any immediate threat that the British would get involved or that their dreams of a neutral Indian Barrier State could come to fruition because, when push came to shove, they kept their gates closed to their allies.

But Pickering negotiated anyways. It is a big part of the story I tell in Peacemakers.  A treaty of seven articles, some of which very clearly served the United States.  Peace and friendship, of course, but also the fourth article, which stated that the Six Nations would never claim any additional lands in the United States. The Six Nations, Iroquoia, would never grow again.  The United States secured the right to cut military roads through Seneca country, and the right to bring its “civilization” program to the Six Nations.

So what did the Six Nations get?  They got, for a time, the return of their lands along the Niagara River. More importantly, they were guaranteed the right o the “free use and enjoyment of their lands.”  The phrase is used three times in the brief treaty.  The United States recognized this right and did so unambiguously.  Native peoples could do what they wanted on their own lands, free from the interference of any outside authority.  They were sovereign nations.

Of course, the legacy of Canandaigua is mixed.  New York, in violation of federal law, continued to buy land, particularly from the Oneidas, Onondagas, and Cayugas, who were completely dispossessed by 1795.  Private interests, with the support of the United States, started carving parcels from Iroquoia.   At Big Tree, in 1797, three years after Canandaigua, the Senecas parted with nearly all of their lands, save for eleven small reservations. I have written about that transaction here. And in more recent years the expansion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Moses Parkway and the Niagara Power Authority, and, of course, Kinzua Dam, the subject of Scott Sackett and Paul Lamont’s fantastic new documentary. Much of what was secured at Canandaigua has been lost.

So what are we left with? The treaty exists. That is a fact.  That phrase, “free use and enjoyment,” is an important touchstone for Haudenosaunee people who face continual threats to their autonomy and independence, their sovereignty and the integrity of their economic enterprises through taxation and state interference.

There is a sticker that is sometimes seen in Indian Country. “Honor Indian Treaties,” it says.  Yet so many Indian treaties are little more than real estate transactions where American commissioners dictated cessions to militarily defeated people and asserted control over their communities. Treaties were too often instruments of colonial control, licenses for empire and subjugation. Canandaigua was different.  At the time the treaty was negotiated in 1794, Haudenosaunee people still retained the capacity, should they choose to align themselves with the Northwestern confederates, to pose a grave threat to white American settlement.  And they used that power, and their own considerable diplomatic skill, to secure the return for a time of a key parcel of land. More importantly–and this is what is commemorated every year at Canandaigua on Treaty Day, though they acknowledge the losses, the celebrate the recognition and confirmation of their right to the “Free Use and Enjoyment of their Lands.” We are native nations, the Haudenosaunee people gathered at Canandaigua assert, and we are still here.